The Hunt, Satisfied… Re-searching Sarah S. Stilwell

December 2, 2014

For researchers and book collectors, the hunt offers thrills that uncover treasures from the past. My first in-depth research project was about a then long-forgotten female illustrator named Sarah S. Stilwell Weber (1878-1939) who came to me through a call for papers for a volume of the Dictionary of Literary Biography on American illustrators. In the end, right before the book went to press, the editors dropped this fantastic artist from the project because she was thought to have had too little output over her career. However, for me, it was too late, I was hooked, but on some level I felt I had failed her by not providing a comprehensive enough profile to convince the editors of her place in American book illustration annals.

In the age of research before Google searches and BookFinder.com, along with the vast amount of digitization had commenced, I was reliant upon the Readers’ Guide to Periodic Literature for doing initial research. This revealed a vague reference to a book by Richard le Gallienne (1866-1947) but cited no title. When I searched OCLC I found a promising title, Mr. Sun and Mrs. Moon (1902), but had no mention of Sarah S. Stilwell. The Gleason Library at University of San Francisco had a copy in its special collections, and on a hunch, I called the librarian and made an appointment and made my way to Lone Mountain.

mer stil fav

MME with her find. Photographed by R.I. Otterbach, 2014.

When the special collections librarian brought the slim volume out, he looked almost apologetic. I remember being left alone with Mr. Sun and Mrs. Moon and opening it to the title page and sure enough, no illustrator was named. The dedication featured a circular photograph of a lovely young Eva Le Gallienne (1899-1991) before her mother Julie Norregard took her to live in Paris:

“To Eva,

Eva, we were so glad you came,

   For life is such a lonely game

With only one to play it, dear –

   As Hesper for six long years;

But now the games you have, you two!

   We are so glad you came – are you?”

The poems, written with much tenderness, reveal a family in stress. Eva was the daughter of a second marriage that was short-lived, while her older sister Hesper is the daughter of Le Gallienne’s first wife who died in 1894. Even with so much love, there is also a strange ambivalence in the verses. The imagery, however, was light, celestial. As I looked at the strange singular style, I was struck by their dreamy gentle styling. The illustrator’s only apparent signifier was two slippers (that on closer inspection were two small “S”s side-by-side), and in one there were a few scrawled “S”s in the carpet. A chill went down my spine – the illustrations were HERS – just small marks hidden in texture – transparent within a very private book of published verses as if the illustrator were an outsider looking into Mr. Sun and Mrs. Moon’s unsettled lives on the verge of collapse.

I breathed: oh my God! That which had been hidden to me, came into view. I would have that response many times again in my research afterward, but never with the same sense of discovering treasure.

“We are so glad you came – are you?”

For a sampling of Sarah Stilwell Weber’s work, check Illustration Art Solutions online:

http://www.illustration-art-solutions.com/sarah-stilwell.html

6 Responses to “The Hunt, Satisfied… Re-searching Sarah S. Stilwell”

  1. diane vadeboncoeur said

    I wrote to you last year. On this Christmas Eve , I finished my essay on SSSW : On the footsteps of Sarah S. Stilwell Weber (1877-1939), illustrator. I established a chronological list of SSSW’S artwork and got an Images file of over 270 items.
    I consulted your super weblog quite often. Mr Sun and Mrs Moon was my last discovery, many thanks to you.
    Diane Vadeboncoeur

  2. mmedesigns said

    Very exciting work! Thanks for bringing Sarah’s legacy to a broader audience… MME

  3. diane vadeboncoeur said

    No broader audience yet! I am in the process of acquiring copyright. First, this whole adventure was a hobby! Now, I’m thinking about it as a work that could be useful for others…
    Diane

  4. mmedesigns said

    That’s the way to go… Sarah would want it that way! Keep this blog posted on your adventures…

    Cheers,
    Meredith

  5. diane vadeboncoeur said

    That’s what I’ll do, Meredith.
    All the best,
    Diane

  6. diane vadeboncoeur said

    Hi, Meredith,
    I sent my essay for first reading and advice at the Delaware Art Museum. The title is ; Treasured moments of joy, fantasy and freedom. Portrait of a beloved children’s illustrator, Sarah S. Stilwell Weber (1877-1939). Copyright 1138014 (Canada). The whole work (essay + Excel file + PPoint of 400+ diapos) may be useful to art lovers and researchers. I let you know as you were so helpful so far.
    All the best,
    Diane

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